Martin Weiersmüller has been working since the beginning of October as emergency coordinator of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid office in Monrovia. He gives us his personal account of Switzerland's efforts in Liberia to deal with the Ebola epidemic and describes the high level of motivation among his colleagues there.
Martin Weiersmüller, explain to us the kind of situation you face on a daily basis in Liberia.
The Ebola crisis presents a particular challenge. Swiss Humanitarian Aid has a great deal of experience of emergency relief operations in the wake of natural disasters such as earthquakes or typhoons. But here in Monrovia we are facing a completely new kind of crisis. Will the situation stabilise in the coming weeks or will it improve? It's anyone's guess how things will develop – the international community must put its full weight behind helping the region to overcome the situation. Ebola can only be tackled properly here in West Africa.
What is the added value of Switzerland's involvement?
Switzerland has been active in the region for many years. The office in Monrovia was opened more than 10 years ago. We also have well-established relations at the governmental level (health and agriculture ministries) and with various multilateral partners and NGOs. These contacts enable us to achieve concrete, targeted implementation of the projects to fight Ebola in the areas defined by us, that is: activities directly connected to the epidemic (delivering medical supplies, supporting partners working in patient care, providing transport etc.) and maintaining a functioning general health-care system. We cannot indeed allow patients to die from malaria or other widespread diseases because the regular health service has stopped working.
How do Swiss Humanitarian Aid's partners react about the epidemic? How does the coordination of aid work in this emergency situation?
At the operational level coordination works relatively well. A number of UN-led specialist groups coordinate the various actors. Also in mid-September the UNMEER (UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response) was set up to harmonise the intervention at the regional level and bring together all the different partners. One difficulty is the very high turnover in staff. Often they only stay for a few weeks, which means that networks have to be constantly re-established.
Isn't it sometimes tempting to simply give up, in view of the enormity of the task at hand and the overwhelming number of victims that need help?
The unpredictable nature of the situation we're in and the constant presence of Ebola (we have to wash our hands carefully and have our temperature checked every time we enter a building) leave no doubt as to the necessity of our work. Our team is composed of outstanding individuals and the uncompromising sense of shared purpose – especially among our local colleagues – makes us all highly motivated to achieve positive results. The SDC office is not directly involved in patient care, which reduces considerably the psychological burden that the work represents. Also the appalling images of people being refused admittance to the treatment centres and breaking down in desperation are no longer a reality. Coordinated aid is showing initial success, for example a drop in new infections in Lofa County, where Médecins Sans Frontières - Switzerland is running a treatment centre with SDC support.